Suddenly Kim Jong-un is a good guy. He sends his sister to the Pyeongchang Olympics to work her icy charms on President Moon Jae-in, and follows up with a proposal for a summit with President Trump and a vague pledge to denuclearise. Confused? You should be. This is the same man who regularly threatens to reduce San Francisco to ashes and Seoul to ‘a sea of fire’, the man who liquified his uncle and assassinated his half-brother with nerve gas. As Mao once said, when the fox is being friendly, put another lock on the chicken coop.
Kim’s change of attitude is both risible and illogical. He is broke, and he needs funds primarily to pay his elite their monthly stipends. Yet trading weapons for cash is a needless concession, and the canny Trump will be wide awake to this ruse, as will Mike Pompeo. Like his revered grandfather, Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-un has Russia behind him. Why give in to Trump when Putin can, and probably will, rescue his regime?
More than anything the current theatrics are obscuring some dangerous movements in the tectonic plates of north Asian geopolitics. These movements will determine the next few decades of life between the greater and lesser powers of this region.
First, the Western media has entirely ignored the growing bitterness between South Korea and Japan. These two democratic nations are America’s key security partners in north Asia, yet the hostility between them is now beyond repair. Japan’s colonisation of Korea from 1910 until 1945 was cruel. Koreans were imported as semi-slave labour for Japan’s coal mines, and Korean ‘comfort women’ were forced to work in brothels for the Japanese military in China. A settlement over this issue was reached in 2015 involving Japan paying compensation, but Moon Jae-in has been walking backwards from the agreement since his election last year, infuriating Tokyo. That said, South Korean public opinion, consumed by a leftist, anti-Japanese fever, is broadly supportive of Moon’s hesitancy.
Second, there is much ancient history at play here. China’s new emperor Xi Jinping has set the ‘Chinese Dream’ as his key policy. Judging from his actions rather than his rhetoric, this involves little more than threatening other nations. He punished South Korea for daring to install the THAAD missile defence system. He grabbed Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port in a forced debt-for-equity swap. He bullied The Philippines and Vietnam, and he constantly harasses Japan along its air and maritime boundaries. Add to that the regular threats to invade Taiwan and wipe out its democracy in favour of Communist party control. This is straight out of the Imperial China textbook, and everyone knows it. Only Moon Jae-in, the Obama of Asia, seems to accept this as normal.
Third, there is profound change in American public opinion manifest in President Trump’s reevaluation of his country’s interests in Asia. Moon’s performance at Pyeongchang – favouring Kim’s little sister over Vice-President Mike Pence – was an appalling way to treat his country’s security guarantor. It reflects Moon’s basic pro-Pyongyang sympathies. Yes, pro-Pyongyang. Moon identifies as a northerner. In the coming months this insane gamble on Kim Jong-un’s good faith may well end in Trump deciding to abandon South Korea in favour of protecting Japan and Taiwan, both vigorous democracies and good friends of America.
Looking back to 1950 and the Korean War is instructive in pondering the current state of north Asia. Some things are shrouded in fog, but some things are certain. Kim Jong-un reveres his grandfather, Kim Il-sung. Grandfather Kim was armed and encouraged by Stalin to invade the south. Grandfather Kim also offended Mao before the war started, though Mao cleverly saved Kim’s bacon by sending battle-hardened Chinese troops to roll back MacArthur’s UN forces to the 38th parallel. These days echoes of that era abound. Kim Jong-un has snubbed Xi countless times, and Xi has retaliated by squeezing Kim’s cashflow. The Han Chinese and the Koreans have never existed together comfortably, and that remains unchanged. But for North Koreans and Russians things are anything but hostile.
The really big question, which almost all Western journalists have foolishly overlooked, is what deal will Kim Jong-un and Putin reach?
An enterprise on the brink of bankruptcy will usually sell equity to a white knight or a vulture fund, ceding control but staying alive in the process. Russia has always coveted the Korean Peninsula as a strategic asset in north Asia. The Tsar almost gained control before 1905 when Admiral Togo Heihachiro took Japan’s new, British-built Imperial Navy and destroyed the Russian fleet in the seas between Korea and Japan. (Togo, as a young naval cadet, was possibly the first Japanese ever to see a kangaroo when visiting Melbourne on the way home from Britain.)
North Korea and Russia share a small but strategically useful border. Kim Jong-un might well be tempted to sell Putin equity, allowing Russian military forces a presence in his country to save him from Trump and Xi. He would gain access to revenue via Russia, and he would get to keep his nukes, his nerve gas, his anthrax, and his missiles. A pretty good deal, as they say in New York and Moscow. Moon Jae-in would then have Russia on his northern border as well as Kim. No more Olympic smiles and kisses then.
So why the summit with Trump? This is a classic communist propaganda tactic, and will doubtless attract acclaim from the Greens, the UN, and the usual useful idiots in the West. President Trump is constantly underestimated as a foreign policy player, something that even Paul Keating felt obliged to point out recently. Politics in north Asia is both dangerous and riven with ancient ethnic hostility among the races and nations. Yet Trump’s clarity of purpose is refreshing – protecting his own people’s interests first, and, after that, those of his true friends.
South Koreans are diligent, admirable people. But they are being tragically betrayed by Moon, the left-wing ideologue whose every gesture seems designed to make life easier for the worst regime on the face of the Earth. This is likely to end in tears for all concerned.
Andrew Thomson is a retired legislator living in obscurity in Kyushu, Japan